Donna Toalson’s ‘tomboy’ spirit captures national attention: 1957

Locked inside of every adult is the spirit of a child. For Donna Toalson, the essence of her former self is a tomboy, captured on film and published by Look Magazine in the Sept. 3, 1957 edition.

A 10-year-old when noted writer Margery Darrell and photographer Ben Spiegel came to Hannibal in search for a “tomboy” to represent the town that Sam Clemens made famous, Donna captured the attention of these imaginative journalists.

The Toalson family – Donna’s parents, Roy D. and Rosalee Brooks Toalson, and four children, Sandy, Donna, Roy Lee and Carey – lived on Hannibal’s South Main Street in 1957, in a green two-story house.

“I was out playing baseball with a bunch of boys,” Donna remembers. Following a scenario that would send today’s parents into a state of frantic, the two strangers came up to Donna and began to speak. “Can I help you?” Donna asked. They told her they would like to take her picture and put it in a magazine.

“They said they had been all over Hannibal looking for someone who represented Tom Sawyer.”

The writer and photographer followed Donna home and asked her father for permission to take photographs.

“Dad said OK. I think he thought it was a big joke. But the next day Margery Darrell showed up with a camera crew. They introduced themselves and started to take pictures of me. They went everywhere I went.”

The final result was a black and white photo essay, encompassing the last five pages of the magazine edition.

“She is brave and rough, and she can have two teeth pulled at once without batting an eye,” Darrell wrote of Donna. “She is only afraid of two things: tornadoes and her teacher.”

The teacher was Doris I. McCarter Loveless, who taught at Stowell School for 35 years. Tornadoes speak for themselves.

Fishing was a passion, Donna recalls: a stick, a line, a hook and bait, fishing for “cat or carp.” Margery Darrell quoted her young subject: “The best thing is to set yourself down with a fishing pole and think of all the things in the world.”

The photographer shot an image of Donna attracting the attention of the young neighbors by swinging a dead snake in the air. “I killed that snake,” Donna remembers, her voice trailing off, as if there’s more to the story than she’s telling, some 58 years later.

Donna’s mother, who will be forever remembered as the proud young woman, seated on the front porch, watching her daughter shimmy up the rain spout, died a few years later. Her sudden and unexpected death left Roy D., to raise their four children by himself.

The only family members surviving now are Donna – who returned to Hannibal a few years ago after spending 30 years working as an LPN in an Alzheimer’s unit in Arizona - and Carey, the little brother she described to the Look journalists as a “nuisance.”

Roy D. Toalson died in the 1986; Rosalee Toalson died in 1961; Donna’s brother Roy Lee died in 2000 when he was just 50; and Sandra Ghattas – a well-known nurse in Hannibal – died in 2012. “They kept it from me how sick she was, so I wouldn’t worry,” Donna said.

Donna told the reporter at the age of 10, that she wanted 26 children. Instead, she had none. But what she does have is the love of her nieces and nephews – each of her three siblings had two children - who fill that void.

So what really happened with that snake during the photo shoot? “I was swinging it around and it wrapped around a girl. She took off screaming,” Donna recalls. A devilish grin spontaneously erupts across her face, reminiscent of the spirit of that little tomboy who lingers within her spirit.

Toalson Bar and Grill, where customers had engraved steins. Click here

Toalson family tenderloins were the best in town. Click here

The Budweiser Beer Wagon pulled by mules? Read about this Toalson family legacy in Hannibal. Click here

Read more about the Toalson family legacy in Hannibal, Mo. Click here.

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